Sat, Jul 26, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Cambodia gears up for `free' election

CELEBRATIONS Thousands of jubilant people yesterday took to the streets of Phnom Penh at the end of a campaign that monitors say was more open than previous years


White-capped and chanting, thousands of Cambodians took to the streets of the capital yesterday for a last day of campaigning in a general election marking another step from the horror of the "Killing Fields".

Good-natured crowds of supporters of the three main parties blocked streets in Phnom Penh for a day of marching, speeches and celebration in what monitors say has been a better, more open campaign than previous years.

If it passes off peacefully, the poll tomorrow to elect a new 123-seat National Assembly will be a rare positive achievement for the troubled southeast Asian nation, still struggling with the legacy of the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide.

An estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of torture, disease or starvation in Pol Pot's vast rural labor camps, which became known as the "Killing Fields".

Despite the ever-present threat of violence in the fledgling democracy, police presence was kept to a minimum and the demonstrations started in jubilant mood under an unusual morning drizzle.

"We are very enthusiastic and full of energy," said Woman's Affairs Minister Mu Sochua, at the head of a crowd of some 5,000 supporters of the royalist FUNCINPEC party.

Election observers say the contest appears to be more open and less violent than in two previous national elections in 1998 and 1993, the latter part of a landmark UN-led effort to rebuild Cambodia after decades of civil war.

However, the two largest national election monitors yesterday joined international rights groups and monitors in accusing the ruling party of switching tactics to control the election, from relying more on widespread violence to "subtle and sophisticated" methods.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia noted an overall reduction of in violence compared to the 1998 election.

"However the forms of intimidation have become more subtle and sophisticated, particularly in remote areas," the two monitors said in a joint summary of their findings for the pre-election period since January 1.

"It also appears that the local authorities, law enforcement agencies, the judicial system and military are all under the control of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) officials," they added.

The concern about this shift in strategies has been echoed by international monitors and rights groups like the US-based Human Rights Watch, which recently released a report about local CPP leaders' use of "subtle strategies" to control the results in the upcoming election.

The CPP has been accused of relying on a grassroots network of local officials and authorities, installed during the 1980s communist rule of Cambodia, to control the polls, especially in remote countryside areas.

COMFREL said 31 party activists had been killed since January, but no party had been singled out for persecution in what remains a notoriously violent society.

COMFREL also cited 268 incidents of harassment and disrupted campaign events.

"In general, the electoral campaign has been much improved compared to previous elections, but it does not mean it is very good," human rights lawyer Kek Galabru told a news conference.

The ruling CPP of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge soldier and veteran politician, is widely expected to win the poll.

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